Will Israeli apartheid steal Stevie Wonder’s soul?

Stevie Wonder performs at a rally for President Barack Obama at UCLA in 2008 (source)

Michal Story Flickr

Update from the Editors, 28 November:

JTA reported today that:

Stevie Wonder is set to pull out of a performance at a fundraiser for the Israel Defense Forces, a source told JTA.

Wonder’s representatives will claim that he did not know the nature of the group, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and that he believes such a performance would be incongruent with his status as a U.N. “Messenger of Peace,” according to a source who has read email exchanges between Wonder’s representatives and organizers of the event.

Original post:

There are a few moments in Stevie Wonder’s career when droves of fans have thrown in the towel on him. To many it was “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (seriously, a lot of people hate that song). To those of us who are aware that Stevie used to actually represent something much bigger in music, it was his meeting with George W. Bush. Now that he’s playing a large concert in support of one of the world’s most vicious occupying armies, one wonders whether he has any soul left at all.

On Sunday, it was announced that Stevie will play the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) gala on 6 December in Los Angeles. This is one of the largest annual events connected to the Israeli military to be held in America, with more than 1,000 supporters of the state of Israel in attendance, and normally raking in tens of millions of dollars to support the Israeli army.

Guests at previous galas around the country have included both high-ranking members of the Israeli military and government officials from Israel. The New York gala, held this past march, featured video addresses by army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. FIDF’s national director is none other than Yitzhak “Jerry” Gershon, retired Brigadier General in the Israeli army and commander of the occupied West Bank division. It was Gershon and his subordinates who oversaw the leveling of entire neighborhoods in Nablus during the second intifada.

In other words, Stevie Wonder is performing for war criminals. He is also helping raise funds for the very forces whose job it is to forcibly evict Palestinians from their homes, harass them at checkpoints, and indiscriminately kill them. Obviously, this performance carries an particular weightiness in the aftermath of “Operation Pillar of Cloud,” Israel’s eight-day long bombardment of Gaza that killed approximately 170 Palestinians, including 34 children.

Just as obvious is the fact that Stevie is agreeing to this performance in blatant disregard for the call for the Palestinian call for the cultural boycott of Israel. This call covers not just performances in Israel “proper” but anything having anything to do with support for Israel’s apartheid regime and its occupation. Maybe it goes without saying, but fundraisers for the Israeli army probably fall under this rubric.

Making matters even worse is that Stevie is crossing not just one but two picket lines. This year’s Los Angeles FIDF gala is slated to take place at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza. Hyatt, it just so happens, is also on the receiving end of a boycott call from the UNITE HERE union and LGBT rights groups for the hotel chain’s low wages, anti-labor practices and discrimination. You have to hand it to Stevie: he really knows how to pick his gigs!

A history of social conscience

There was a time when Stevie Wonder might not have been so willing to play for the warmongers of the Israeli state. True, Stevie has rightfully been thought of throughout his career as primarily a writer of love songs, but he also came out of a cultural moment in American history that was very much shaped by upheavals against racism and colonialism. It was the time of liberation movements in Vietnam, Angola, South Africa and the Black Panthers and urban rebellions at home. All around the globe, ordinary people seemed ready to buck off the twin bondages of racism and empire. All music was affected by this upheaval, but perhaps none more than soul.

Stevie’s “classic period,” roughly ranging from 1972 to ‘76, came right at the height of these struggles. Yes, there were his heartfelt tributes of love. Everyone knows “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “I Wish,” and his beautiful song to his newborn daughter, “Isn’t She Lovely?” It’s easy to forget just how many of his best songs from this era also had a profoundly conscious, almost radical bent: “Village Ghetto Land,” “Big Brother,” “Living For the City,” and one of his absolute classics, “Higher Ground.”

As the ‘70s progressed and gave way to the ‘80s and these movements declined, so things got a bit tougher for any artist of conscience, but Stevie kept it going. He was a key public figure in the campaign to have Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday declared a national holiday in the United States. His 1980 single “Happy Birthday” was dedicated to pushing the issue.

Even more often forgotten is the closing song off 1985’s In Square Circle: “It’s Wrong (Apartheid).” The title and the lyrics just about say it all:

You know apartheid’s wrong, wrong
Like slavery was wrong, wrong
Like the holocaust was wrong, wrong
Apartheid is wrong, wrong, wrong

Stevie also publicly turned down a lucrative offer to perform in apartheid South Africa during these years. In fact, in response to “It’s Wrong,” his music was banned by the South African government!

Now, this same artist is playing a benefit designed to raise millions of dollars for the military wing of an apartheid state. There’s plenty of room for speculation on how he went from A to B here, but none of the conclusions are particularly savory.

Israeli racism and fans’ resistance

If we were to give Stevie the benefit of the doubt, then we’d would have to guess he’s not completely aware of the rank colonial racism that lies at the core of the Israeli state. Is he aware of the long history of discrimination against Ethopians and other African Jews? Has he heard of the recent mass deportations and relentless racist attacks on Sudanese and other African refugees and migrants? Or really, has he heard that the man in charge of social media for the Israeli army has recently been caught in blackface, calling it “Obama style”?

None of these should be excused on their own merits, but in recent years Israel’s repression of Palestinians — living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, or as second class Israeli citizens, or stateless refugees — has been pretty difficult to ignore. And despite a concerted effort on the part of groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to recruit among young people of color, a growing number of racial justice activists are vocally siding with the Palestinians. Many have also made solidarity trips to occupied Palestine.

Fortunately, there are those out there trying to remind Stevie that he still has it in him to show a bit of soul. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has released a petition (which every reader should sign) urging him to cancel the FIDF performance. The wording of the petition is smart in invoking the artist’s past commitment to opposing South African apartheid:

Today, the Israeli army is enforcing a system that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has deemed even worse than Apartheid in South Africa. Fifteen years ago this week, Nelson Mandela said himself: “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”…

Three years ago, you were designated a Messenger of Peace by the UN. November 29th, one week before your scheduled performance, is the United Nations International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Please be that messenger of peace by refusing to entertain or fundraise for a military that continues to systematically oppress an entire population. 

Please continue your legacy of speaking out for the oppressed. Please be a “full-time lover” of justice by standing on the right side of history and canceling your performance for the Israeli army. 

Well said indeed. Stevie Wonder performing for the Israeli military only allows the State of Israel and its supporters another chance to wrap themselves in the flag of justice and equality. In reality, the country’s legacy is in polar opposite to everything that’s given this brilliant artist’s work its meaning.




I am very surprised and very saddened to read that Stevie Wonder intends to perform for the IDF, but as so many others realised when Peter Oborne made his you tube documentary about the power of the 'friends of Israel' in UK, those speaking out and against will find their career opportunities vanish, and those speaking for will find their future very lucrative.



Stevie Wonder- shame shame on you! You must have absolutely no consideration for human rights. Have fun doing doing your show while losing lots of fans along the way. If this is how you must ignite your musical soul, you must be in pretty bad shape. A non fan!


This will do nothing to improve the image of Israel or the IDF. It will only ruin the legacy of Wonder and make it impossible to ever enjoy his songs again


The news that Stevie Wonder is scheduled to play for an IDF fundraiser came as quite a shock!

I have loved Stevie Wonder and his marvelous music since he first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show to perform the chart-topping single on May 3, 1964.

With harmonica in hand, the 13-year-old wunderkind took to the stage and delivered a memorable performance that left viewers in awe. Wonder’s captivating stage presence and exuberant energy quickly coaxed the audience into clapping along to the lively tune. This landmark performance was one of the most inspirational to take place on the Sullivan stage. To this day, Wonder continues to be a prominent performer and recording artist after nearly 5 decades in the musical business. With 25 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award, and an Academy Award, Wonder will forever remain as one of the music industry’s most prolific and influential artists.

How the general public will respond to him performing at this event still remains to be seen. The reason for any slight doubt is his legacy has always been bigger than even Michael Jackson's. Stevie not only plays soul music like few ever have, he has brought 'soul music' to a level that can never matched by any future performers. But, then again, the Mammonite agenda was virtually unknown to the general public as it is today, thanks in great part to the Internet. What many of us did not know then was the stranglehold they have on finance, entertainment and especially media. It's also relatively unknown the grip it has on the recording business. Personally, I feel that Stevie was pressured to perform or he would soon lose the power he has built over fifty years.

My niece is TV-movie actress (who was raised in a strong Christian home) and has shared with me that those in the industry who fail to tow the Mammonite agenda, will be out on their rear. Some folks deal with this, some sell their souls!

Let's hope the greatest "soul man" ever didn't surrender his!


Please Stevie,
don't play for an occupational army. The Palestinian people are now in a similiar situation to our sisters and brothers in South Africa during apartheid.

Against occupation, against oppression!


congratulations on you STEVIE for standing against south african and israeli apartheid.
we need more like you in the world

Alexander Billet

Alexander Billet's picture

Alexander Billet is a music journalist and solidarity activist based in Chicago. He is on the editorial board of Red Wedge magazine, and his articles have also appeared in The Electronic Intifada, Jacobin, TheNation.com, New Politics and other publications. He is one of the founding members of Punks Against Apartheid, who successfully campaigned in the summer of 2011 for the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra to cancel his concert in Tel Aviv.

A full collection of his articles can be found at his website Rebel Frequencies, and he can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.